Mavis Vaughan and her identical twin sister, Doreen, were born on November 25, 1924, in Kimberley, South Africa to George Phillipus Vaughan (1895-1969) and Catharina “Kitty” Barnard Vaughan (1900-1996).
Mavis’s father George was a middle-distance runner and a rugby player. He worked for De Beers diamond mining company.
Sadly, both twin girls had defects in their legs. Doreen had a damaged hip causing her to limp through life and Mavis had a leg that was somewhat “slow.” After contracting rheumatic fever as a child, Mavis suffered from nervous breakdowns during her teens requiring hospitalization and was unable to walk or talk for a time.
She had to relearn those skills and those breakdowns left her feeling fragile.
While a teenager, Mavis really wanted to be a good athlete. Her father had been training girls at her school, so she joined in. She said, “I started out full of enthusiasm. I seemed to be getting nowhere fast. I told myself that if I did not have instant success I would never get there. I found excuses to give up. I believe my dad was disappointed, but he never forced me. I restarted a few times but ended the same each time a failure.”
Because of her poor health, her schooling suffered, and she never graduated from high school. World War II arrived, and she worked at the government mint in her hometown making tools for the manufacture of weapons. She wanted to join the Army but her father would not give consent. He gave her good advice and always emphasized that she needed to be nice to others but should also stand up for herself. He wanted her to work hard but take time to smell the roses. Of her mother, she said, “My mom was a very private person, but some things did rub off and what rubbed off on me most was about going the extra mile, working hard, being not just a starter but a finisher, and being there for one another.”
Mavis married at the age of 22 and in 1947 gave birth to her son Jess. Allan was born in 1949 and after divorcing their father she moved to Johannesburg where she met and married Ernest “Ernie” John Hutchison (1916-1991) who was a miner. He was a quiet man, but a great stabilizing influence on her and always supportive. Ernie had two children of his own and adopted Mavis’ sons. Two more daughters arrived, making up a “yours, mine and ours” family of six children.
In 1960, Hutchison’s boys, Jess and Allan got involved in the latest new fad, racewalking. She and Ernie watched them train and compete. Her sons pulled her to be more involved in athletics. As she watched her boys run, she realized she needed some form of exercise and rekindled the desire to become a good athlete.
Mavis began her athletics career as a race walker, and her first record was in the 50-mile walk known as the Rand Daily Mail Big Walk in 1963 (9 hours 35 minutes). That same year she was timed over the standard marathon distance of 42.2 km, but took about ten minutes longer than Violet Piercy had done in 1926, and 13 minutes longer than Merry Lepper’s time a few months later.
In 1965 she was (as an unofficial entrant) the third woman in history to finish the 90 km of the Comrades Marathon, and the first since the 1930s. In later years she completed the race seven more times (1966, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981).
She went on to set new women’s world records for the 100-mile and 24-hour run in 1971, and for the 100-mile and 24-hour walk in 1973.
In 1973 Mavis became the first woman to run the 602 km from Germiston (near Johannesburg) to Durban, following this with the ‘up’ run from Durban to Germiston the following year. By this time she was well known in South Africa as the ‘Galloping Granny’.
In 1975 she took a bit over 22 days to run the 1000 miles from Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital, to Cape Town, the legislative capital. That same year she entered the Comrades for the first time as an official participant, even though the Pretoria to Cape Town run had left her in poor shape for the race, but dropped out toward the end when she realized she would finish outside the maximum allowed time of 11 hours.
In 1976 she ran from Germiston to Cape Town, beating her previous time by more than three days, and in 1977 she ran from Messina, on South Africa’s northern border, to Johannesburg.
She became famous as the first woman to run across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York City. Her route, run in 1978 as a 53-year-old grandmother, took her 2871 miles and 69 days, 2hours and 40 minutes. According to the Guinness Book of Records this record still stands.
Two years later she set a new women’s record for the John O’Groats to Land’s End, once more fighting extreme physical difficulties to reach her goal. Her last long runs were from Pretoria to Cape Town in 1982, and a circuitous 3200 km run around much of South Africa in 1985, starting in Kimberley and ending in Cape Town.
She first entered the World Master’s Games in 1977 (Gothenburg Sweden), and has since entered the Master’s Games in 1979 (Hanover Germany), 1993 (Maizaki Japan), 2006 (San Sebastian Spain) and 2007 (Riccione Italy), winning numerous medals.
Since 2005 she has set South African W80+ master records for 100 metres (18.84 sec), 200 metres (45.46 sec), 400 metres (1:52.88 min), and 800 metres (4:34.13 min).
"It is not the suffering that's important but the objective. If you knew anyting about the pains of labour, Sir, you would know that the moment your child is born the labour pains are forgotten, they become irrelevant, it is a moment of great joy and that is how it is with my running"